Riding Big Red


Last month, Boston’s transit authority the MBTA introduced a new “high-capacity car” on the Red Line which they call Big Red. Basically during rush hours a couple of car without any seats are placed at the center of the train. As an experienced commuter, I’ve long become accustomed to the limited circulation within MBTA subway cars. This is especially true for people in wheelchairs, people with bikes, luggage, or other bulky items, and people like myself who travel with children in strollers. Even when it’s just human bodies, it can get pretty tight in the subway car. So I found this an excellent idea and having recently had a chance to ride the Big Red (with my son in his stroller) found it much more convenient to board, get into the center of the car, and find a place to ride in peace without getting in anyone else’s way.

While Big Red is promoted as a high-capacity car, I think it’s real advantage is in improving the circulation of passengers within the cars which will contribute greatly to speeding up boarding times at the station. In a normal subway car, the ride is often slowed down by:

  • People who start boarding while other people are trying to get out of the train
  • Passengers who stand in front of the door while other people are trying to board and unload.
  • Passengers who completely block the aisle w/ their bodies and/or accouterments.
  • Passengers who refuse to move into the center of the car (of course w/ other passengers blocking the aisles can often be blamed for this)
  • People who insist on squishing into an already crowded train even when it’s been announced that another train is approaching.

I’ve only had a chance to ride a Big Red car once, but I did find that a lot of these problems were alleviated by the more spacious interior of the seatless cars. The MBTA has received a lot of harsh criticism for Big Red – most noticeably from that bastion of fair & balanced journalism the Boston Herald which pictured a subway car full of heifers under the headline CATTLE CAR. I personally applaud the MBTA for thinking creatively, and even if Big Red flops, I hope they continue to try out new ideas that may improve the rider experience on the T.

I’ve travelled on transit systems in other cities that have spring-loaded seats that can be flipped down when needed by the riders.  I think this is something the MBTA should consider to make the interiors of the subway cars more flexible.  On the U-Bahn in Munich, I was also impressed that at the stations in the center city all the passengers would exit out one side of the train while boarding passengers would enter from the other side of the train, greatly decreasing the amount of time the train has to spend at the station.  I think the MBTA should try this at Park Street station by having passengers board the train from the side platforms and exit onto the center platform (although since the elevator is on the center platform, anyone needing the elevator would still have to board from the center platform).

I’ve submitted my comments to the MBTA through their Big Red survey on their website.  Let’s hope they keep trying things out to make getting around our great city all the more pleasurable

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